The Temple of Dawn

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translators: E. Dale Saunders, Cecilia Segawa Seigle
U.S. publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9780671824532
Released: July 1978

After reading and being rather impressed by the first two books in Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility, Spring Snow and Runaway Horses, I was anticipating with great pleasure reading the third volume in the series, The Temple of Dawn. While the previous books were translated by Michael Gallagher, The Temple of Dawn is translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle. I find it somewhat strange that the translator would change in the middle of a series, but each book really is quite distinct in this case. In Spring Snow Honda’s close friend Kiyoaki dies at a young age. In Runaway Horses, he becomes convinced that Kiyoaki has been reincarnated in the young man of Isao, who also dies tragically despite Honda’s efforts. And now in The Temple of Dawn, Honda faces yet another possible reincarnation.

The Temple of Dawn is told in two separate parts. Part One, the shorter of the two, begins in 1940. Honda, who has remained a lawyer since Isao’s death, has traveled to Thailand in order to settle an international case. While there Hishikawa, his guide and translator (who he can’t stand), arranges for him to meet Princess Ying Chan, the seven-year-old daughter of Prince Pattanadid with whom Honda attended school briefly in Japan. Much to the embarrassment of her relatives, the princess is convinced that she is the reincarnation of a Japanese boy. Honda hopes and believes she is in fact his friend Kiyoaki reincarnated, although he does have some lingering doubts. As a bonus for his diligent work on the case, Honda travels through India before returning to Japan—a trip that affects him profoundly and sparks his obsessive study into reincarnation. Part Two begins in 1952 and primarily follows Honda whose obsession has turned from reincarnation to Ying Chan who is in Japan to study. The princess has grown to be a beautiful if somewhat indolent young woman and has no memory of her childhood eccentricities.

Many characters from Spring Snow and Runaway Horses return in The Temple of Dawn or are at least referred to. The Temple of Dawn doesn’t stand on its own quite as well as the first two novels, but most of the information needed to understand the overarching plot is provided. To me, Kiyoaki’s reincarnation as Ying Chan didn’t seem to work as effectively as his reincarnation as Isao. Part of this may be because the story doesn’t really focus on Ying Chan except voyeuristically through Honda who really seems to be the focus of this book. I was somewhat surprised that World War Two did not play a very big role in the novel. The changing international tensions between travelers abroad before the war, the Japanese populace’s reaction to the the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the attitudes towards the American occupation force are briefly explored, but beyond that the war is mostly ignored.

I didn’t enjoy The Temple of Dawn nearly as much as I did either Spring Snow or Runaway Horses. The book’s tone seems very different from the first two books; I’m not sure if this is due to the new translators or if the change is found in Mishima’s original as well. But some things remain the same—great attention is given to the details of the environment and setting, descriptions are sensual and evocative. Some of the writing is simply breathtaking but at other times it can be rather tedious (the primary example being an overly-lengthy exploration of the various theories and philosophies surrounding reincarnation which just serves to show the extent of Honda’s intense interest in the subject). The characters are often cruel and manipulative—Honda himself has become somewhat of a creepy bastard—but somehow even this holds a sense of beauty in its own peculiar way. The Temple of Dawn may not be my favorite volume in The Sea of Fertility, but I am still glad I read it and look forward to finishing the tetralogy with The Decay of the Angel.

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